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On tap for 2013

You'll need an e-book, a bicycle and plane fare to Myanmar to be trendy this year. Photo by The Nation

Publication Date : 03-01-2013

 

From cycling, e-books to travelling to Myanmar, here's a list of what's hot in 2012

 

Cycle chic

Commandeered long ago by trucks, buses, cars and motorcycles, Bangkok has always been loath to squeeze in fiddly little bicycles. But the cyclists are a determined bunch, and last year they achieved significant progress in raising their profile - thanks to a little "cycle chic".

To be fair, we cyclists must credit the teenagers who picked up the trend from the West, where cycling makes strong sense and holds a clear identity in popular culture.

Dressed stylishly and accessorised with caps and smart-phones wired to their ears, the new tribe of cyclists can be seen any daytime riding their fixed-gear and single-speed machines along Sukhumvit and Rajdamnoen. Assembling in public spaces like the Royal Plaza, they share music, gossips and the latest wheeling tricks and take group photos to be posted on Facebook and Twitter.

The once-small group continues to swell as cycle chic catches on in the mass media. Fashion editors have a new use for the word "bespoke", the Okura Prestige sets out bicycle racks, and Sukhumbhand Paribatra, hoping to stay on as the city's governor, borrows a leaf from London Mayor Boris Johnson's book and offers bikes for hire.

Recently we had a Bikefest thanks to A Day magazine and Coca-Cola, and last week saw the Suan Luang Rama IX Bike Fair. The Green World Foundation chips in with a Bangkok Bike Map that can be downloaded to a mobile for free. Biking, as they say these days, is dope.

Cyclists, long relegated to quiet suburban roads and dirt tracks, now roam freely on the bustling streets of Bangkok, and no longer wait for the annual car-free day to have company. It's often a bumpy ride, to be sure, and motorists will never happily share the right of way, but at least city cycling is chic now, and the future looks faster.

Easy e-books

When Newsweek magazine announced that, as of today, it would no longer have a print edition and would instead exist only online, it was literally a "stop the presses" moment. The pixel had triumphed over the pen.

Newsweek cited speed, efficiency and vast cash savings, but it also said its readers preferred the "sophisticated" digital context. For all forms of print media, the writing is on the wall - and in many cases they need a Kindle to read it.

Amazon's Kindle and Apple's iPad e-book readers have caught on mightily in the West and eventually ought to do well elsewhere too, especially if the trend toward "open" format continues. It allows people to read their downloaded e-books on any device - Kindle, PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, BlackBerry or Android - rather than being only able to view an Amazon book on a Kindle, for example, as is the case in the "closed" system.

Publishers are upbeat about the future, even in countries like Thailand that have been slow to respond. An estimated 1.5 million Thais now flip book pages electronically - out of a population of 60 million - and it might be years before more begin taking pleasure in reading online rather than casual socialising. E-books command at best 1 per cent of the overall book market here. (The AIS chain currently leads in e-book sales among Thai bookstores, with more than 300,000 downloads per month.)

But growth is steady and the potential is there, waiting for global interest in e-books to mature and for e-readers to become more affordable - and more convenient.

Sales of Kindles suffer in Thailand due to inconvenience. You can't use a Kindle Fire to buy an e-book from Amazon.com if the billing address is outside the US. Users have to make the purchase through their PC or laptop, save it to a cloud drive and transfer it to their reader via a cable. The iPad makes online buying much easier.

But people are already looking beyond the Apple Store and Amazon. Search engine SmallDemons.com doubles as an online bookstore with instant links to big sellers like iTunes, Barnes and Noble and Amazon. You get synopses and reviews, passages highlighted according to your search parameters. It adds a buzz to the books that's bound to draw more readers to e-browsing.

Next stop: Myanmar

It seems like only yesterday that you couldn't travel in Burma because of the military junta's iron curtain of fear and prejudice - and if you did somehow manage a tourist trek, you felt guilty for letting down the besieged pro-democracy movement.

Suddenly Burma is Myanmar, the generals wear suits and Southeast Asia's last untapped tourist destination is sharing all its picturesque glories with anyone who's got a bit of cash. Barack Obama and David Cameron (and Yingluck Shinawatra) have been, so there's no reason you shouldn't go.

Rights activists still fret over continuing conflicts in ethnic areas, but the biggest challenge for travellers now is deciding which of the many wonderful attractions to see, from the hundreds of elegant ruins in Mrauk U to the temple-studded plain of Bagan.

You can enjoy a slow boat ride up the Ayeyarwady River to Mandalay, join a dawn monks' parade across the world's longest teak bridge in Amarapura and find your own marvels anywhere among Myanmar's off-the-beaten-track destinations.

And the only word of warning now is to get there soon, because investment is pouring in, fuelling the tourism industry and dramatically boosting visitor numbers - and prices. Grab a low-cost flight to Yangon or Mandalay while you still can.

See my etchings

If there was a fundamental shift in the fine arts last year, it was the rise of privately operated galleries, a reaction to ill-managed government museums and commercial showplaces. Several wealthy collectors around the world decided it was time to open their own establishments.

In Thailand, that trend included billionaire Boonchai Bencharongkul, who opened the six-storey Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCa) on Vibhavadi-Rangsit Road. The 20,000-square-metre building displays more than 400 artworks from Boonchai's collection (a third of what he owns).

And Disaphol Chansiri began showing some of his collection at his condo on Sukhumvit Road, by appointment. He has impressive pieces by Chatchai Puipia and the late Montien Boonma, as well as one of Damien Hirst's weird skulls and prints by Julien Schnabel.

French expatriate Jean-Michel Beurdeley is exhibiting Thai and Chinese art at his home gallery in the Ramkhamhaeng area, some of which is regularly loaned for exhibitions abroad.

This business of sharing your art collection with the public didn't begin just last year, of course. Artist Chalermchai Kositpipat has been building Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai since 1997 and five all-white structures are now completed, including a museum that houses his work. Nearby is another artist's ambitious construction project, the all-black compound of Thawan Duchanee. It has 35 edifices of varying size, holding thousands of his artworks and his collections of animal skins, bones, horns and claws.

Also in Chiang Rai, a lack of government support has prompted 100 artists led by ceramist Somluk Pantiboon to undertake the Khua Silapa (Art Bridge) Project. Backed by a Bt500,000 donation from Chalermchai and selling shares in the project, they expect to open an elaborate pavilion next month where visitors can watch artists at work and soak up the creative vibes.

In Bangkok, a collective led by Chumpol Akkapantanon has opened Baan Silapin (Artists' House), an old but thoroughly renovated wooden house on Klong Bang Luang. It has a gallery, a studio where you can learn to draw and make woodcuts and jewellery, and a coffee corner with crafts and souvenirs for sale.

Art, as they say, is for everybody. -

I 'like' TV

The social media fully came into their own in 2012 as indicators of public opinion on what TV shows are worth watching - and how they could be better. Production studios responded accordingly, re-adapting the shows episode by episode, and advertisers and market researchers monitored every move.

"Social TV", it's called - the verdict of the masses as rendered on Twitter and Facebook. Television is now interactive. Users chat about the shows while they're airing, and their collective opinion wielded a power that contributed significantly to the success of "Rang Ngao" and "The Voice Thailand" on Channel 3, "Fan Pan Tae" on Channel 5 and "Iron Chef" on Channel 7. Anyone who missed an episode was bound to read all about it the next day.

The phenomenon can only get bigger in Thailand as the new 3G network speeds up communication and the prices of smart phones and tablets come down. Facebook, with its relatively sterner privacy settings, will continue to lag behind Twitter when it comes to social TV. A survey by TV Guide found that fully half of Twitter users discuss shows as they're watching them.

While the television industry can take heart in the fact that the new technology isn't going to replace it, its producers now have to respond on the fly to viewers. Such are the immediacy and mass weight of the social media.

And consumer-behaviour researchers have to adjust as well. US-based pollster Nielsen last month introduced "Nielsen Twitter TV Ratings", acknowledging that Twitter's mammoth collective opinion counts. Nielsen's Thai operation hasn't yet followed suit, but Channel 3 has cited Twitter in claiming that some of its shows are much more popular than Nielsen asserts.

It remains to be seen whether TV producers will always be able to point to Twitter "trending" as absolute proof of a show's success. That belief might falter if the Twittersphere's response to a show if one immense complaint - if the hottest topic is all thumbs down.

 

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